Review: #ChurchToo

#ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing, Emily Joy Allison. Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books, 2021.

Summary: An argument connecting sexual abuse and other sexually dysfunctional teaching to the purity teaching upholding an ideal of abstinence until marriage between a man and a woman.

Emily Joy Allison went to a non-denominational evangelical church. Her father gave he a purity ring and was told she shouldn’t even kiss a boy until marriage. She eventually went to Moody Bible Institute. But before that, she was a survivor of sexual abuse from a youth leader in her church who “groomed” her and then came on to her. She’d never been taught about her body or about consent or what constituted abuse. Her father figured out what was going on, the leader was removed from the youth group, and the church swept the incident under the carpet. Emily’s last contact was a forced call him to apologize for her role. He never apologized. In her parents’ eyes, she was just as much to blame as he was. The day would come years later when she was no longer welcome home. At this writing, she still is not.

She buried this incident for many years. Only when the #MeToo movement arose did she summon the courage to create a new hashtag, #ChurchToo, and told her story and outed her abuser. Her story serves both as prologue and example of her thesis: that purity culture emphasizing abstinence, or else, creates the environment for abuse to thrive in church contexts. Women bear a disproportionate responsibility to dress and live “modestly” so as not to cause men to be aroused. It creates a rape culture, where the assumption is that the abused bears as much responsibility as the abuser. Sexual shame is used to create social control at the cost of both women and men hating their bodies and their sexuality–even while many are sexually active, up to 80 percent in a statistic cited in the book. Allison uses her stories, those of others, and research to deconstruct purity culture and its underlying theology.

Allison, a self-professed lesbian, goes further. She argues that the abstinence ideal underlying purity culture is homophobic, doing violence to LGBTQ persons. She advocates for a fully affirming position as the only alternative to abusive purity culture, with no middle ground.

In response, first of all, I’m convinced that her account of purity culture and its use of shame and social control to try to enforce an ideal of abstinence until marriage between a man and a woman is both credible and chilling. Her own story of her church’s inadequate and manipulative instruction about sexuality and coverup of her abuse is heartbreaking. I believe her. Her account, sometimes laced with profanity and justifiably angry is one I’m sure many churches will shun, likely the very churches that need to hear her.

What I miss in her attack on abstinence and advocacy for a fully affirming stance is a theology of human sexuality, particularly of the meaning of our sexuality. She rejects the “clobber verses” of scripture without addressing either the underlying theology that is part of the fabric in which these verses have been understood nor the theological premises, if such exist, for her own alternative of “ethical nonmonogamy.”

Likewise, while exposing the scandalous character of abuse in the church, which needs to be brought to the light of day, she offers no discussion of the rape culture I’ve witnessed as a collegiate minister in public universities where student have no lack of sexual education and instruction on consent. Donna Freitas, in Consent on Campus, notes what a complicated idea “consent” is and the reality that at least one in four report sexual abuse. Students nod knowingly when they hear the phrase, “the walk of shame.” This is not a purity culture context.

So, while I disagree with her broad brush indictment of abstinence and am committed to a different sexual ethic, her challenge to the patriarchal structures of the church, and her analysis of the purity culture a generation of youth were raised on, is deserving of attention. The dysfunctional sexuality of these churches is matched by the dysfunctional sexuality of the wider culture. There is a trail of abuse arising from both. Allison challenges us to something better than #MeToo and #ChurchToo.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The #MeToo Reckoning

the metoo reckoning

The #MeToo ReckoningRuth Everhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A discussion of sexual harassment and assault in the church, the impact on victims and the response of many churches more focused on institutional reputation than protecting victims and justice for the perpetrators.

Ruth Everhart tells two #MeToo stories of her own in this book. In the first, she was raped at gunpoint in college. Part of her healing was testifying against her rapist, seeing him convicted and sent to prison. In many ways, the second incident was harder. Serving as an assistant pastor under Zane Bolinger, a respected senior pastor, she became the object of inappropriate attention, culminating with being forcibly kissed in her own office.

The early chapters of this book use this incident to trace how the dynamics of sexual assault often play out in churches, beginning with the patriarchal power exercised by Bolinger in assaulting her. She describes her efforts to seek redress from the church’s personnel committee, how they accepted the pastor’s account that he had acted from “pure Christian love,” burying the assault in pious language that protected the abuser and the institution. She concluded that she had to leave.

Perhaps the most chilling part of this narrative was the subsequent consequences in her former church. It did not have to do with Reverend Bolinger, who was gone by this time, at least not directly. A young man had been sexually abused by a church member. Everhart describes the conspiracy of secrecy that followed that did not report abuse to the authorities or even to the congregation and that elicited a “confession” that failed to acknowledge responsibility. The culture created by Bolinger, one of autocratic leadership that covered over anything detrimental to the church’s reputation continued. Healing only began with a process of bringing what had been hidden into the light, eventually resulting in the perpetrator’s conviction, and a new policy for handling allegations of sexual abuse.

Everhart then goes on to describe her efforts to bring Bolinger up on charges before the denomination and the mixed results that illustrate how such proceedings often try to bring healing without justice, that neglect the basic issue of sincere apology, and the preservation of power and institutions (including protecting the institution from legal exposure above protecting victims). Subsequent chapters detail the connection between purity culture and rape culture in the church, patterns of betrayal and deceit by perpetrators, not only on victims, but on manipulated church leaders, and the challenge, particularly for women, of finding a voice to speak up, to press for justice.

Everhart interweaves biblical narrative with her own and others narrative. Abuses of power and sexual abuse run through scripture, in the stories of Tamar, of David and Bathsheba, and others. She shows God’s concern for the victims, some incorporated into the ancestral line of Jesus. Everhart also speaks frankly and practically about what denominations and churches can do to care for survivors rather than institutions, from honest language (“rape” instead of “had sex with”) to involving the whole church in how churches will respond to sexual abuse.

There has been a #MeToo reckoning taking place in our culture, from exposing assault by physicians to gymnasts and other athletes, to movie moguls and political figures. The Catholic Church is paying huge damages for past abuses. Bill Hybels, longtime leader of Willow Creek Church, was forced to step down due to a pattern of improper sexual behavior. These are stories now being played out in many churches. Everhart’s book ought to be a must-read for every church governance board. The church in the greatest danger is the one that says, “it won’t happen here.” Those are the ones that practice institutional denial when it does, including shaming, or shunting aside the survivors of abuse. Those are the ones that wittingly or unwittingly create a culture where abuse can continue unchecked–until the reckoning.

Everhart does not want your church to be among these but rather among those who create brave and safe spaces where these matters are spoken of with candor, where survivors can find support rather than shame, where “brightline” policies are in place that discourage or identify potential abusers early, and if abuse occurs, it is made public and prosecuted, not covered up. This is a book filled with hope for survivors and gritty encouragement for leaders who are ready to set aside patriarchy and power for protecting and raising up the vulnerable, who are willing to expose the ugly underside of human behavior to Christ’s truth and justice.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Who Are We Protecting?

In recent years, it has become common place to point the finger at the Catholic church with regard to sexual abuse by clergy. Well, this week Protestants discovered the “log in their own eye” with the Houston Chronicle report on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).The article featured a mosaic of mug shots representing a portion of the 220 who worked or volunteered with the SBC who were convicted or pleaded guilty to sex crimes. The investigation reported over 700 victims, many of which were minors, which, if it follows the pattern of other investigations, may be the tip of the iceberg.

Similar to other sexual abuse scandals the article traces a pattern of ignoring victim reports, protecting perpetrators, and refusing to make reforms that would protect children from these sexual offenders. Tragically, in the case of some pastors, even after convictions, they were able to secure pastoral roles in other churches, even nearby churches.

Sadly, I don’t think we are going to be eliminate patterns of sexual brokenness that lead to sex crimes. A highly sexualized culture and patterns of dysfunction in families suggest to me that churches and other ministries will continue to need to take measures to protect against predators, and others who violate boundaries of trust. Churches are “target rich” environments for predation, bringing adults and children together, often in relations of trust and privacy.

It seems that in all these scandals, there has been a systemic blindness to the clear teaching of Jesus:

“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:5-6

I grew up singing “Jesus loves the little children.” It’s that simple. The priority in our churches must be to love and protect our children. To fail to protect our children may well be to cause them to stumble–indeed many who have been abused have turned away from the faith. It seems there are some basic steps we can take.

  1. Break the silence. The worst assumption we can make in churches is “we all know each other and none of us would do something like this.” Candid education of every one, dealing with the signs of abuse, and how the whole church can be involved in preventing abuse, may deter potential abusers. Making clear a commitment to child safety and the practical steps the church takes in its children and youth programs sends a message that “we are committed to the safety of children.” It may even encourage parents of young families to come to your church!
  2. Screen all pastoral candidates, staff, and volunteers who work with children. One of the problems in the SBC was the refusal to track sexual predators. Applications, references and background checks may seem burdensome but they are a small price to pay and they say “we are committed to the safety of children.” I personally felt better about my son’s involvement with Boy Scouts when I learned I needed to undergo a criminal background check to volunteer with our troop.
  3. Train volunteers who work with children with periodic refreshers. Establishing clear protocols of appropriate and inappropriate contact, how to recognize signs of abuse, and how to keep children safe are important, including how children are released to parents or caregivers.
  4. It may seem burdensome, but the rule of an adult never being alone with a child makes sense. It was a rule for which I was grateful when I worked with Scouts, as much a protection for me as for the boys I worked with.
  5. Have a clear policy of how suspected abuse is dealt with, including implementation of your state’s mandatory reporting requirements. Physical or sexual abuse of minors is a crime. All of this makes it clear that abusers will not be shielded and that the priority is the safety of children. In all the sexual abuse scandals, the problem wasn’t merely that abuse happened, but that deliberate steps were taken to protect the abuser, and the reputation of the institution, instead of the abused child or youth.

Certainly there is more to be said about this. But is it so hard to say in our religious institutions that ensuring the safety of our children takes priority over protecting individual or institutional reputations? Jesus doesn’t need us to protect his reputation; he needs us to protect his children. Period.